Water Heroes: Ma Tsepo Khumbane – Harvesting Rainwater to Grow Crops

This week’s water hero, Ma Tsepo Khumbane, is a retired social worker and development activist who has spent the last 40 years fighting poverty and malnutrition by teaching South Africa’s poor how to harvest rainwater to be used to grow their own crops, as well as speaking out for better sanitation and hygiene practices.  Due to her extraordinary efforts she has received the Katlego Award of Spirit of Hope and South Africa’s Women in Water Award, but maybe even more important she has received the fulfillment of helping others.  She is also the founder of the Water for Food Movement as well as being a speaker at many events and consultant for numerous NGOs and government departments.

Khumbane’s teachings include soil moisture retention, organic fertilization, tank construction for the collection of rainwater and runoff, and gray water reuse.  Her own backyard is a testament to her intelligence and innovation in the use of water.  If you watch the video at the bottom of this article you’ll see what I mean.  It’s an organized maze of diversion ditches that move the water to where it is needed, contour ditches to collect and store water, contour basins where her fruits and vegetables are grown (and which can also serve as storage of water), as well as three underground storage tanks.

What’s even more amazing is that it all works together in harmony and allows her to collect almost all the water that comes onto her property.  When building all of this she paid attention to where runoff came from, and started there.  When it rains water runoff is captured and dispersed via gravity throughout her property, and if she ends up with too much there is an overflow at the end that will dump water to keep her plants from becoming flooded and uprooted.

Besides this she also came up with a great idea for a drip irrigation system.  As it is in most of the world she noticed a lot of empty water bottles being littered throughout her neighborhood and decided she could put them to use.  She collected the water bottles and poked holes in them with a needle.  Then she buries them in her crop beds leaving the mouth of the bottle out so they can be refilled with water.  As they sit in the ground the water drains out the holes and slowly waters her plants.

Photo via wrc.org.za

Khumbane started all of this because, in her words, food security is “24 hours a day, 31 days in a month and 365 days in a year,”.  Through her Water for Food Movement she is not only teaching people how to grow their own crops and harvest rainwater, but is also helping them develop skills in food processing so they can sell their crops, which can help bring them out of poverty, and improve the social conditions of the people.  It at the same time teaches people the importance of water and living in unity with the environment.  To use the water that falls from the sky to benefit themselves instead of just letting it run off into the distance.

Regarding sanitation Khumbane has seen first-hand one of the biggest problems and something that I have written about in the past.  That is NGOs and government offices coming in and building toilets and washing stations but not educating the people about why sanitation and hygiene are important, or how to maintain what was built or how to build more themselves.  She says she sees toilets that are built and then are never used and just turn into a place where kids play and eventually they become broken.  What’s the point of that?

In her view a lot of this is the result of the government setting goals on sanitation.  Goals like building X number of toilets by a given year.  So they just go in, build the toilets, and leave so that they can say that they have reached their goal.  Instead, she argues that people should be trained on how to build these things themselves, and educated about their importance.  This way you’re empowering the people and helping to give them lasting skills that they can use for the rest of their lives.  And she lets the government know that she feels this way, speaking at various events and panel discussions in support of including the people in water, sanitation, and hygiene projects throughout South Africa.

Over Khumbane’s 40 years doing this work she has helped countless people, and here’s one of her many success stories:

A woman named Theresa Molotsi was desperate because her child had been hospitalized due to malnutrition.  After talking to Khumbane about how she could establish a no cost garden her eyes were opened and she felt some hope.  She started her garden from the teachings of Khumbane and was able to get her child out of the hospital.  She then expanded her garden and started selling more and more out of her house, and later started buying and selling various vegetables, snacks and other consumables.  From the money she made Theresa was able to expand her home, and after ten years had enough to buy a second hand vehicle.  And her son has been able to attend college due to her success!

This is a great story and I’m very happy for Theresa, but I think the real special thing here is that because of what she learned from Khumbane her son was able to go to college.  Now he will have a better life and be able to go out into the world and make something of himself instead of having to stay in the continuing cycle of poverty that so many have to live in.

Every time I write one of these Water Hero articles I’m amazed and so inspired by the people I write about.  In a time where governments are failing their people and corporations are polluting the earth it’s great to read about someone that is doing great things for the people around them and anyone else that is listening, and just to do it.  Not to make some money or get their picture on TV, but just because they’re a great person, and for that I say thank you Ma Tsepo Khumbane!  And thank you for reading.

Here’s the video I mentioned above that shows the system at Khumbane’s home:

Water Heroes: Ma Tsepo Khumbane – Harvesting Rainwater to Grow Crops
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